Want a robot?

March 25, 2013 at 12:36 pm Leave a comment

Many people, me included, are fascinated by robots. Robots come in many different forms — some much more intelligent than others. I don’t mean the science-fiction androids you can find in movies –those don’t really exist, at least not yet. I mean actually-existing robots in the real world that can adjust their behavior in complex ways, to fit a changing environment. Probably the best-known intelligent robots right now are self-driving cars. If you haven’t seen a video about this, you should check it out for yourself:

Not exactly what comes to mind when you hear the word, “robot”, is it? But still, the car moves and adapts those movements in a complex way to a changing environment — it’s an intelligent robot. I expect the day is coming when most cars will drive themselves. No more drunk drivers, no more falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into oncoming traffic. No more fun??

What does this have to do with IT? You can figure that out easily — intelligent robots get their intelligence from the computing power that guides them.

Factory robots have been around for quite a while, often replacing many assembly line workers with one big complicated machine that does the same routine over and over again. Those robots originally were not so much intelligent as they were strong and fast. Giant welding robots could weld a car frame in several places at once, very precisely and quickly. Over and over. Very useful, but not very smart. With the addition of more computing power, these robots in some cases are getting smarter, more able to adjust their behavior automatically to changing conditions. There’s not much future for humans in routine assembly line jobs in the US. But there’s a great opportunity for those who know how to design and maintain these machines. (By the way, all this stuff gets designed by teams of people with varied kinds of knowledge — some mechanical, some electrical, some IT. Business people with IT knowledge may be the ones to get the ball rolling.)

A very different kind of somewhat intelligent robot is found in the group sometimes called “remote presence” robots. Like self-driving cars, some of these robots can guide themselves down office building or hospital corridors, stop and start when needed, avoiding collisions with people and objects. They are equipped with cameras, microphones, screens, and a sound system. Using wi-fi, they connect to the internet, allowing someone located anywhere in the world to communicate with the robot, sending audio and video to anyone near the robot, and allowing the remote person to hear and see what is going on around the robot.

How are these remote presence robots useful? Already, they are being used in some hospitals, to allow doctors to do morning rounds, checking up on their patients in the hospital without the doctor’s ever leaving his or her office. A nurse accompanies the robot from room to room, asking questions of patients, taking vital statistics, and so on. But the doctor is there with the nurse, in the form of the robot, and can ask questions, give instructions, and get information via the robot. Similarly, a student who is not able to leave home because of illness or disability could attend class this way. I expect in the next few years we will begin to see remote presence robots occasionally on campus. Since these robots are essentially just fancy laptops on motorized wheels, they are not terribly expensive to build.

However, the most fun and personally interesting robots to me are the intelligent ones that walk and talk, with the potential to be personal assistants for people. Especially for people with severe physical limitations, people who need a lot of help with basic things like getting dressed, eating, and so on. Many of us have experienced family members with needs like that. Caring for such folks is very draining, and often extremely expensive. We’re a long way from having robots that are proficient enough to be able to be a full-service personal assistant, but work is being done toward this goal, and strides are being made every week. One project along these lines is a cooperative venture that any student anywhere in the world can help with, online, organized by a French company. I’ve chosen a video about this company’s robot, Nao, to illustrate some of the potential, partly because Nao is cute. I actually think that a personal assistant robot should be cute!

I should warn you that Nao is too slow and too small to be really useful at present. But Nao does already have some of the basic capability needed — Nao can “hear” voice commands, can “speak” through embedded speakers, can “see” with cameras linked to visual computer processors, can walk, can get up if it falls over, can find objects, can reach out and grasp objects. When viewing the video, keep in mind that Nao is NOT like a remote-controlled helicopter or drone. No person is behind the scenes telling Nao where to go, how to move, when to reach out and grasp something. Nao does all these things on its own, once turned on by being tapped on the head. Nao navigates through a house by being given a camera feed from a ceiling camera, not by someone pushing buttons or manipulating a controller thingy. Nao’s main brain is not inside of Nao’s body, but is rather a computer communicating with Nao wirelessly.

Want more Nao video? Just search for Nao on YouTube. With a little IT background, you could even help develop Nao’s abilities.

Kenton Machina

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Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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